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Friars Interviews

Phil Pickett and Grant Serpell

friars appearances 18/01/75  28/06/75  11/10/76  16/02/76  01/11/76

       Sailor, Milton Keynes, December 2008. (picture credit Mike O'Connor) (l-r) Henry Marsh, Grant Serpell, Phil Pickett, Oliver Marsh

Sailor broke through in a major way in 1975/1976 getting recognised for their multi-influenced sounds and visuals with the centre-piece nickelodeon. They played five headlining concerts at Friars and won the Friars Aylesbury Talent Winners Cup in 1975 which has its pride of place in Phil's studio. Sailor have been together pretty much most of the time and retain a loyal following in Europe. Phil not only played with Culture Club in the 1980s he also co-wrote one of the biggest British songs of all time, Karma Chameleon. Three quarters of the original line up still play today and Sailor received the Friars Heroes Award in 2008.

They played a rare UK gig in Milton Keynes recently and we caught up with Phil Pickett and Grant Serpell for a chat. Our grateful thanks to them for their time.

I'm with Phil Pickett from Sailor having just seen a wonderful Sailor gig and also tonight Sailor were presented on stage with the inaugural Friars Heroes award

Phil Pickett (PP): By your good self!

Yes, it was squeaky bum time for the webmaster!

PP: You did very well. Let me tell you - a lot of people came up to me and said how good it was and how good a presenter you were.

That's very kind, but I should point out (for the tape!) that I was press ganged by you and Henry before the concert! But as you know I'm here to talk about Aylesbury Friars and as you know, Friars was really big in terms of Sailor's growing up as a band.

PP: It was one of those venues around the world, probably one of only around four very very special places where we got the kind of reaction that was almost unbelievable. I'm glad to say we usually go down reasonably well, but the audiences there [Aylesbury] were always sensational...and helped propel us into the stratosphere for the time that we were very big. It's a long time ago but still remember it very well and David Stopps and all the people there and all the characters. You just loved playing there. It was always a great vibe...

From 1975 to 1976 you had five big headlining shows..

PP - Was it five? Good Lord!

...and they all went down sensationally well and a lot of artistes on the website have incredibly fond memories of playing Friars

PP: It was electric the atmosphere and it was always absolutely rammed and the feeling was so good there, it was a very special place in terms of our growing up.

You mentioned to me earlier about a support slot for Cockney Rebel and the audience took to you.

PP: Yes they did, and Steve Harley took to us as well, he was very very generous to us. I think he saw us do an In Concert on BBC2 and contacted our manager and said we're going on tour, would Sailor come out with us. There was a quirky originality that Cockney Rebel had, certainly in the early days and it was a very complimentary programme for people to come and see Steve Harley who was massive then and [us] who were the new kids on the block. I don't think we would have got our record success if we hadn't built up the audiences...and I think we nicked half of Steve Harley's audience!!!

Do you think as well that the visual appeal of Sailor with the nickelodeon - it was unique and still is....

PP: I think it is...we've kept the same thing, trying to do something that's a little bit different to somebody else. That was the idea at the time and it's stuck with us.

There weren't many bands using the kind of instruments that say Fairground Attraction were using many years later...

PP: That's interesting....

You know, a harp and guitarron...

That's right....and glockenspiels and mandolins. We were a bit folky really. But in the 70s we were almost like a revue. We played universities and the record company signed us and said "we love you guys, but we want some hits" so we were segued into this glam rock thing which wasn't really us so we readapted our look and theatricality a bit to reflect what people wanted at the time.

Hence Georg having an anchor on his face?

PP: Yes, and stylists involved, although we styled ourselves in the early days. It was all a bit radical...short hair and sailor suits. A bit risqué.

I guess so. The cover of your first album (Sailor) had the four of you in sailor suits. The style  you referred to was revue, but there's a bit of music hall [variety] to a certain degree as well..

PP: I think that the show...there is a music hall element, a music hall entertainment...I think British bands have that.

So Aylesbury was a good starting place in terms of building up an audience and in 2008 you're still building an audience. I know these days you are very popular on the continent, why for example have the people of Germany taken so well to you?

PP: It's a very good question...and I do find it quite mysterious. The German audiences are very very big audiences and they are very faithful to bands over a long period of time. The British market is good, bit it's much more of a fickle market. They've got a big market over there for bands of all eras and they go out in their masses and pay their money to see these bands. They've been a lifeline to bands like us.

I've seen some of the YouTube clips for example, some of the open air German gigs and the crowds have been vast.

PP: Over here, you've got the tour that Boy George (is or won't be headlining in Spring 2009 dependant on circumstances) is headlining (an 80s tour) but you've got about six other bands and yet there doesn't seem to be a 1970s equivalent in this country. It's very very strange.

But you were involved in a 70s tour in this country about 18 months ago with the Rubettes..

PP: We do those tours because it's work to us and we enjoy them, but we don't feel like we're a 70s band. That sounds snobbish, but we were an albums band when we started but the album market just collapsed when we formed! Therefore to market us, because we were theatrical they put us into the glam thing. But we related much more to what Genesis were doing...

So you got lumped in...[to glam]

PP: We didn't want it really because we were much older than the others.

We are now joined by Grant Serpell (GS)

I was saying to Phil that Aylesbury seemed to be very kind to you....

GS: Oh yes

....and helped to break Sailor.

GS: There were certain key gigs we did, The Penthouse in Scarborough and Aylesbury gave us an awareness we could entertain people. That's very very important. We'd all been round the block a few times. I had played with Geno Washington and Mike D'Abo. When you start something new, you don't know if there's going to be a market or not. The first time we played Friars, the second album [Trouble] wasn't out, the first was, but certainly not the second and to get a crowd of that size...they knew there was something commercial here.

My introduction to Sailor was probably 'Glass of Champagne' but I had an older cousin who influenced me heavily and I listened to 'Trouble' and 'Sailor' and they were incredible...'Let's Go To Town'...I still play that now! I was hoping you'd do it tonight but guessed you probably wouldn't!

GS: It's a great opening number but it's very conceptual within the original Sailor concept....

With the bass drum in front of the nickeodeon..

GS: Yes! but we can't... most of the gigs we do it's get on, 45 minutes and get off! You've got 15 minutes to get on so you have to go with the bare minimum, no sound check and you're out there and you do it.

It's a real shame that Oliver (Marsh and son of Henry, Sailor's singer played his last gig just before this interview) is going. The highest compliment I can pay him is that it was like Georg was there. I'm not saying that was deliberate, but in terms of vocal style and made the band complete.

GS: We will miss him. The person that replaces him...we have to have some equivalent of Con Te Partiro because that is such a tour de force. To finish like that is amazing (webmaster's note....Oliver performed an operatic piece, Con Te Partiro, on stage - he is leaving to pursue a career in opera) . The gig before last in Essen (Germany) when he did Con Te Partiro, there were 8,000 people clapping with their hands above their heads, such an amazing reception.

You've retained a huge following in Germany..

NB: Yes, but they are there because it is an oldie night with six or seven bands. We know if we go out on a multi band bill, we can...not blow the other bands away, but they [the audiences] respect us because they know we are really good. You have to accept this [multi band gigs]. Our last hit in Germany was in 1991, La Cumbia, which was a big hit all over Europe but didn't even get a release here. That's the way it is. A guy tried to put a solo gig by Sailor last year in Munich but he had to pull it because it wasn't selling enough tickets. It's very difficult to get people to come out for a 70s band.

But thirty odd years on, you still have a career with Sailor which is more than many from the 70s can say..!

GS: Yes, and the 80s and the 90s!! Many have been and gone, we're aware of that.

If you look at the bands that played Friars in 1975 and 1976 and look at who is still touring now, there's going to be very very few

GS: Absolutely, that's true. And we're very lucky to have three original members...

With Henry coming back which was good. You've obviously remained friends over all this time.

GS: Yes.

Although you and Phil have been pretty much constant in Sailor, am I right in saying you had Gavin and Virginia David in the band?

GS: That was probably 1978 when they came in. That's when I left the band, I really didn't think much of them! (laughs) I didn't see any future in that.

So Sailor went into another hiatus.....

GS: Phil and Henry carried on. Georg had already left by the time David and Ginny came in. I couldn't see it being successful so I thought 'what's the point' and I jacked it in.

But you came back on board later....

GS: Yes, when we reformed in 1989 and I've been solid with that [ever since].

That's when you reformed with Georg?

GS: Yes and Georg stayed with us until about 1993/1994. Georg doesn't really like performing live.


GS: Yes, he gets very nervous.

Yet when people identify with Sailor's most successful period, that was all Georg's songs...I'd have imagined he'd be out there wanting to perform them. So he was quite a reticent performer?

GS: Yes, whereas the three of us love performing...

That's evident!..with all the running round the stage

GS: That's unusual as rock bands are normally all groin thrusting and trying to be cool. We're different.

How is Georg these days?

GS: He's fine, we're in touch with him. I spoke to him last week. He lives in France.

You must mention the Friars award to him, because I'm sure he'll be very pleased with it.

GS: Oh indeed!

Thanks very much

GS: My pleasure!

This interview and its content are © 2009 Mike O'Connor/ and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.



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